The Abuse of Similes

This columnist is fed up with hearing that this or that is “like the Holocaust” or “like rape”. To compare, say Saddam’s massacre of the Marsh Arabs, or the mass slaughter of Bosnian Muslims, acts of genocide both, to the genocide against the Jews is unnecessary. To compare criticism of a caste of people to such acts is offensive. If something really is like the Holocaust this should be obvious. If it is not, don’t say that it is.

The latest group to cry anti-Semitism is the Catholic Church, worried at criticism of its priests over child abuse. Obviously, prejudice against Catholics can be as bad as prejudice against Jews. There are differences, of course. No-one is born Catholic and, though Judaism is also a system of belief, Hitler’s genocide was based on racial, not religious, intolerance. The targets of the Holocaust were born Jews.

But the senior Vatican priest who made the offensive comparison went rather further than linking complaints about clerical abuse to prejudice against Jewish people. He specifically said that Jews know “from experience what it means to be victims of collective violence.” But where is the violence against Catholic priests? The only violence is in the victimization of children too young to consent to the acts carried out on them. It seems certain that some priests are guilty of such abuse. It seems equally certain that other priests – some now in senior positions in the Church – have conspired to cover this up. This may even be true, in at least one instance, of then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.

But the fact that Ratzinger, who served as Archbishop of Munich and Freising for five years, has been linked with just one case of cover up – and he may not have even known about this one – indicates that the problem, while serious, remains rare. The vast majority of Catholic priests are not child abusers, and our vitriol should be reserved for those that are, and those who enabled them. To highlight priestly abuse over other examples of child sexual abuse is, arguably, an example of prejudice. Though the fact the Catholic Church institutionalizes its own canon law and, as a matter of policy, does not involve the proper authorities in investigating criminal acts is a matter of legitimate debate and criticism.

But to compare criticism of the Catholic Church – even when it is unjustified and based on prejudice, which it isn’t always – to “collective violence” is ridiculous and offensive. The Vatican has a case, but should not overstate it.

There is no evidence that priests are more likely to abuse children than, say, teachers, or any other group of people in authority over them. Some of the worst examples of child abuse have been institutionalized at children’s care homes. Some of these homes have been run by churches and others by public authorities. This columnist has seen no evidence that one type of institution has been worse than any other – and suspects the state run institutions are likely to be worse. They have their own cover ups, too. In one instance in Britain decades of abuse of seniors was covered up by a local authority which asked union officials to investigate allegations. Unsurprisingly, the union concluded that none of its members had done anything wrong. The problem is abuse, not clerical abuse.

Article provided by Quentin Langley
Lecturer in PR and Political Communications,
School of Journalism, Cardiff University

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